Ben Buchwalter

Commission to Review Racially Tinged Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory minimum laws apply to an array of crimes, the most controversial of which is drug sentencing. Essentially, thanks to mandatory minimum laws, which were implemented in 1986 after basketball star Len Bias overdosed on crack cocaine, require judges to determine a defendant’s sentence without considering outside mitigating factors. In the most controversial example, crack cocaine users (who are predominantly black) receive a punishment 100 times more harsh than powder cocaine users (typically white). Back in October, the Obama administration asked the US Sentencing Commission to review the minimums. I called the leadership of Families Against Mandatory Minimums about the story:

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) argues that the requirements have not achieved their intended purpose of reducing crime and scaring minor criminals into giving information about the most flagrant offenders in return for lighter sentences. As any self-respecting fan of The Wire knows, those at the bottom of the drug pyramid don’t get details about what goes on up top. So while the drug kingpins have an avenue through which to reduce their sentences, says Jennifer Seltzer-Stitt, FAMM’s federal legislative affairs director, “[minor users] who don’t have anyone to trade get longer sentences.”


Racist vs. Racial: Which One Was Joe Wilson?
January 10, 2010, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Barack Obama, Mother Jones, Race, Republicans | Tags: , , , ,

September 17, 2009

Last September, the furor among Republicans against President Obama and his perceived agenda was almost tangible. But the public’s response to Obama, since he launched his historic campaign for president at the beginning of 2008, has veered dangerously close to subtle racism. But clearly, not all criticism of the president and his agenda is racist. And bringing up the topic of race doesn’t automatically make someone a racist. In the midst of the speculation of widespread racism among the Republican party and other anti-Obamaites, I tried to clarify the difference between racist and racial in MoJo:

If you define a racist as someone who feels animosity toward someone of another race, then most political and media confrontations aren’t racist (Limbaugh and Beck aside). More often, we see politicians being racial, acting or speaking with the clear awareness of race. Though outdated and perhaps ignorant, Bush calling Obama “this cat,” is not racist. It’s racial. Similarly, pointing out the problematic racial views of some white commentators is not racist or reverse racist. It’s racial.

The Joe Wilson case is different. Calling out “You Lie!” is not, on first glance, racial or racist. Wilson actually thought Obama was lying. But the question is whether some members of the GOP harbor a more subtle racism in trying to put Obama in his place. Last week, for example, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said that President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, should show some “humility” while delivering a speech on health care reform to congress. And during the campaign, many red state voters couldn’t quite put their finger on why they didn’t like Obama. There was just something about him. Last August, former Reagan and Clinton staffer David Gergen said that the McCain campaign deliberately pushed the message that “he’s uppity, he ought to stay in his place.”

How Restorative is Rwanda’s Justice?
November 22, 2009, 5:55 pm
Filed under: Crime and Justice, Foreign Affairs, Mother Jones, Race | Tags: , ,

July 17, 2009

Back in July, the US loaned Rwanda $44 million to continue its multi-layered restorative justice system that was implemented to help the central African country come to terms with the 1994 genocide which killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Unfortunately, as I wrote for Mother Jones, this admirable goal has so far not lived up to its potential because the Tutsi-led government has too often used it for revenge rather than justice. A preview:

Gacaca, literally “on the grass,” is a restorative system which allows perpetrators responsible for crimes including isolated murder and destruction of property during the genocide to decrease their prison sentences if they plead guilty, apologize, and agree to supplement their shortened jail time with community service. But the gacaca courts have been instructed by the RPF to focus only on crimes that occurred during a limited timeframe, most of which were committed by Hutus. During the protracted civil war that preceded the genocide, though, The Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army was also responsible for murder, rape, and destruction of Hutu property. Also, gacaca judges are untrained and elected by the community, which raises concerns about international standards of due process and impartiality.

Reality Bites
May 28, 2009, 10:02 pm
Filed under: Race | Tags: ,

Ta-Nehisi Coates adds to the racial debate over Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. He references this article in Time, which states that the nomination is a milestone in the relationship between blacks and Hispanics, who “in the 20th century could be as violently distrustful of each other as blacks and whites were.”

Coates says:

One must be clear about what constituted “violent” distrust “between” blacks and whites in the 20th century. It meant thousands of whites, in Atlanta, in 1906, assembling on the streets to randomly murder black people. In Springfield, Illinois, in 1908,  it meant whites pillaging a Jewish businesses for arms, and then proceeding to the black side of town, attacking black business and black homes, and thousands of black people fleeing for their lives. It meant whites–across the nation–in 1910 assembling in mobs and murdering random black people (On the 4th of July!). The cause? Jack Johnson had the temerity to win the championship. It meant whites in East St. Louis, in 1918, perpetrating  a pogrom against the city’s black population, and killing over 100 black people because, “southern niggers need a lynching.”

I have not known Latinos in the 20th Century to perpetrate a Red Summer. I have not known blacks to lynch Latino veterans, returning from war, in their uniforms. The fact is that there was no violent distrust between blacks and whites in the 20th century. Rather there was a one-sided war waged against black people by white terrorists, which government, in the best cases, failed to prevent, in many cases, stood idly by, and in the worst cases actually aided and abetted. I’m sorry but comparing that to whatever’s happening between blacks and Latinos, is a slander against both those groups, and an amazingly naive take on the history of white America in regards to race.

Racial Terms as Alphabet Soup

I think we can all agree that it’s a little odd how steamed honkies like Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh are getting that President Obama nominated a Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court. As a white man, I can attest that it is terrifying that we not only have a black President, but he wants to increase the representation of women and minorities throughout government! Can you imagine anything worse?

The most frustrating aspect of the racially motivated pushback against Sotomayor is the way that some of these wingnuts define terms like “affirmative action” and “reverse descrimination.”

Today on MSNBC, Pat Buchanan told Norah O’Donnell that the pick amounted to nothing more than affirmative action because the Obama administration hinted throughout the process that they were looking for someone who would make the Court more representative of the country as a whole. See the video:

I guess that brings up the question of how we define affirmative action. And if it was affirmative action, is that a problem? It’s definitely possible, though unlikely, that there were no white men qualified for the Supreme Court. But the overarching fact here is that the Supreme Court, currently with one woman (Ginsburg) and one minority (Thomas) does not represent the American people as a whole. So in my view, adding a female voice is valuable. And adding a Hispanic voice is valuable. And if that is affirmative action, I am fine with that. But I don’t think it is. Sotomayor is a great pick because in addition to being incredibly smart and having a thick resume, her confirmation will bring the Court much closer to being representative of its constituents. That is a qualification, not a crutch.

Rush Limbaugh was also (not surprisingly) spewing some crazy Tuesday. On his radio show, Limbaugh called Sotomayor a “hack,” a “racist,” and a “reverse racist.” Matt Yglesias tries to understand Limbaugh’s outrage and apparent confusion about the difference between racism and reverse racism.

Being a “reverse racist” can’t be similar to being a “racist,” it needs to be the reverse of being a racist. Limbaugh clearly just thinks Sotomayor is a racist. She hates white people. For a Latina to hate white people isn’t “reverse” racism, it’s racism. Reverse racism would be if you had a white person who hates white people. It would be like racism, where you hate people of other races, but in reverse.

It seems there is a war brewing over Sotomayor between ultra-conservatives in the Republican party and GOPers who actually want to get something done. It will be interesting to see where the battle lines a drawn and how far this racial rhetoric will go. So far, the media director for the Republican National Committee, who will supposedly be part of the efforts to rebrand the GOP, has enlisted on the ultra-conservative side… through Twitter.

Friday Brain Dump

There is A LOT to talk about this week! Let’s start with…… Obama! (who else?)

  • Fresh off successfully passing of the economic stimulus bill – Obama’s first Presidential priority, Obama has started to focus on foreign affairs. This week, Obama visited Canada and promised to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. I am not sure how I feel about this. Sometimes I wonder if a progressive must advocate for one war (Afghanistan) in order to oppose another (Iraq) with legitimacy. Obama will likely feel some resistence from more liberal congressmen and senators about this decision. I wonder if it’s a mistake to deliberately engage in something as messy as Afghanistan. Clearly, the primary objective of the Obama Presidency is to turn the economy around. If he does this, Obama will be re-elected. If he does not, Obama will write another book in four years. Presidents are often forced to engage in foreign affairs to the detriment of their pet objectives. But why do it willingly? Hopefully we can walk (fix the economy) and chew gum (fix the world) at the same time.
  • Senator Patrick Leahy’s call for a truth commission to investigate the wrongdoings of the Bush Presidency seems to be gaining traction. I was initially skeptical of this idea. Why spend time and effort looking backwards when we have so many important things to do? But I think I’m coming around. I am legitimately disturbed by the Bush administration’s tacit approval of torture and general abuse of the Presidency. Holding him accountable and those who help devise the scheme could restore respect to the Presidency and improve American credibility worldwide.
  • It looks like Kathleen Sebelius – the popular Democratic Governor of Kansas – is the top choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, the position intended for Tom Daschle. Though I like Sebelius, this is a mistake. In fact, it’s a mistake because I like Sebelius. She was a huge favorite to win the Senate seat being vacated by Sam Brownback in 2010. Kansans love her strong moderate record in the conservative-leaning state. Sticking her at HHS could secure the Kansas seat for another Republican wacko. This dilemma leads Chris Bowers to ask, “Are Cabinet Positions Better than Statewide Office?” The answer seems to be yes.
  • The New York Post is run by idiots. That’s not any sort of new or original conclusion, I just thought it should be said. The ultra-conservative paper’s first response to the racist cartoon it ran this week was to condemn civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton for grandstanding and seeking attention on this issue. Classy. The paper’s second response was to issue this non apology. Whether or not the cartoon was intended to be racist, its incredibly stupid and offensive and requires a genuine apology.
  • Check out this map! Cool idea for regional high speed train lines. Via Rachel Maddow’s twitter page.
  • Matt Cooper says the Democrats picked crappy replacements in IL, NY, and DE. Bennet in Colorado is alright, though. I said this once too!
  • As you all know, this weekend is the Oscars. I am very excited, as this is by far my favorite award show. And I like award shows. Nate Silver has predicted the winners based on his highly successful method for predicting the 2008 election. Also, the Times’ David Carr has predicted winners. Both call Slumdog Millionaire the clear winner. While it was a good movie, it wasn’t as great as Milk. You heard it here, Milk will win best picture. Best Actor is the hardest category. Penn or Rourke? Though Sean Penn was probably better, I’m going to say Rourke. Everyone loves a comeback. Also, Danny Boyle (Director), Winslett (Actress), Ledger (Sup actor), and Cruz (Sup actress). On other categories, Benj Button and Slumdog will nearly sweep. Dark Knight for sound categories.

Buchwalter OUT!

On its Birthday, the NAACP Becomes Inclusive
February 12, 2009, 10:45 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Race | Tags: , , , ,

As the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, celebrates its 100th birthday today, the organization’s leader signals an interesting change that speaks loudly to the shifting tone of race relations in today’s society. The NAACP will move away from addressing African American issues exclusively and focus on improving equality among all people across the world.

According to the 36-year old President Benjamin Todd Jealous,

“The No. 1 challenge we face is the lack of outrage in this country about how everyday people are treated, and so that is what I’m focused on now,” Jealous said. “We’ve practiced one formula with great success and need to continue to transform this country, not just for black people, but all people.”

In the near future, the NAACP plans to focus on health care, Darfur’s genocide, and climate change.

This is an interesting evolution, and I think a really good one. Many successful nonprofit organizations and political action committees expand once they are successful with their original mission. The NAACP has had incredible success desegregating the United States and making society safer for African Americans. Applying this organization to other American minorities and internationally oppressed populations could be extremely powerful.

But there are two major risks associated with the NAACP’s expansion.

  • The NAACP should not spread itself too thin. One of the reasons it has been so successful in the past is that it has had one mission: to advocate for racial equality using the legal system and democratic modes of opposition. If the NAACP expands its programs without expanding its base of support (financially and socially), then it risks squandering its incredible potential.
  • Also, the NAACP should not send the message that racial issues are fixed in the United States. Yes, things are much better than they were 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. But a much subtler racism remains in American cities, towns and rural communities that often manifests itself in housing discrimination, workplace inequality, and delicate daily interactions.

The NAACP’s growth touches on a reader diary I noticed on the Daily Kos yesterday. The author suggested that we should do away with Black History month because 1) it is condescending to African Americans, and 2) It is not necessary to elevate this minority over other American minorities.

Doing away with black history month is unrealistic, unnecessary, and unproductive. But it does raise questions about why we visibly honor African Americans in February, but barely notice the months dedicated to Hispanic Americans (September 15-October 15), Asian Americans (May), and most notably, Native Americans (November). Is it anything more than collective national guilt for our history of slavery and government sponsored racism? If so, why aren’t we as repentant about our involvement in the Native American genocide?

This speaks to one major issue that lurks behind racial dialogue in the United States. Do we elevate African American history and the history of American oppression to the detriment of other major American minorities (which have not exactly had a free ride)?

Jealous’ vision for the future of the NAACP indicates that this should not be the case. And I hope that the neo-NAACP will be equally as successful as it has been in the past 100 years to help increase equality between Americans of all backgrounds.